As an author and critic, David Thomson is best known for The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and Have You Seen ?: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films. He's also authored a series of brief biographies of classic Hollywood movie stars for Faber & Faber (e.g., Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis, Gary Cooper, Ingrid Bergman). The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood takes readers on a unique, often idiosyncratic, occasionally tangential ride through Hollywood's colorful history. His latest book-length essay, The Moment of Psycho, offers a fascinating look at a key film in Alfred Hitchcock's fifty-year career as a filmmaker.

Ambitiously subtitled "How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America How to Love Murder," The Moment of Psycho revisits the cultural, social, and financial constraints Hitchcock faced when he tried to get Psycho greenlit after the cancellation of two other projects. Paramount refused to finance Psycho, leading Hitchcock to partner with Universal. Trading gross points for a smaller, up-front salary, splitting ownership, hiring actors at less than their usual salaries, and shooting in black-and-white with a crew culled from his television series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Hitchcock had almost complete control over Psycho, with one exception: the Hays Office.

The issue then (and now) wasn't so much the violence, most of it implicit, including the infamous shower scene that put Eisenstein's theory about montage (i.e., editing to create visual impressions and connection) than the adult, sexual themes and ideas explored in Joseph Stefano's adaptation of Robert Bloch's 1959 novel. Psycho opens in what was then a shocking, even lurid scene: Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), the ostensible protagonist, in her underwear, moments after a sexual encounter with her lover. Sam Loomis (John Gavin). Hitchcock, however, had learned his away around the Hays Office through trial and error on his previous films.

Through trial and error on his previous films, he developed a step-by-step method to get approval from the Hays Office, primarily by including scenes and dialogue he knew would be cut, leaving other, favored scenes and more subtle dialogue in place. Shooting in black-and-white also diminished Hays Office oversight. As a low-budget, non-prestige production, Psycho didn't receive the same level of scrutiny as Hitchcock's films from the previous decade. Although the blood shown in Psycho is tame by today's standards, in 1960, it would have resulted in major cuts if Hitchcock had filmed in color.

Production details don't get us any closer, however, to an explanation of the subtitle. Thomson posits that Psycho, with its shocking murder at the 40-minute mark, implicated moviegoers as voyeurs (and perhaps more) in that death. Despite the murder of the central character, moviegoers watched Psycho through to the ending, shifting their sympathies, as Hitchcock wanted, from Marion to Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). Thomson is at his most insightful when, rather than skipping ahead to the murder in the shower and its aftermath, he lingers on Marion, exploring the social circumstances that limited her choices and compelled her, inexorably, toward the Bates Motel and Norman Bates.

Thomson's analysis extends to Marion's unsatisfactory relationship with Sam and the hints of a relationship, more friendship than romance, between Marion and Norman. He suggests, with some accuracy, that Hitchcock lost interest once he dispatched Marion to her place in cinematic history. From there, mystery-thriller plot mechanics take over. Thomson has little patience for Sam or John Gavin, an actor of limited range; likewise with Lila or the actress playing her, Vera Miles. As the sweaty, nervous private detective Milton Arbogast, Martin Balsam fares better in Thomson's opinion, primarily for his screen presence (less so for his mechanical demise at the hands of Norman's "mother"). Thomson acknowledges that Stefano's screenplay deserves blame for underwritten secondary characters.

Due to the brief length, Thomson doesn't explore Psycho's influence on horror in any detail. He sets aside a single paragraph for Peeping Tom (a personal favorite), a similarly themed horror film released the same year as Psycho. Peeping Tom and its director, Michael Powell, a filmmaker known for visually striking melodramas and fantasy films (The Tales of Hoffman, The RedShoes, Black Narcissus, A Matter of Life and Death, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp), were received with hostile, morality-based criticism by the by the British press and the general public. Breaking radically from his previous work, Powell's career suffered a major setback from which it never recovered. In hindsight, Hitchcock's previous work laid the groundwork for Psycho, a film that was less a subversive break efforts than a natural progression, one moviegoers eagerly embraced in 1960.
categories Features, Cinematical